Travel as a Solitary Pursuit -- according to Hazlitt

Ainsley Boe

Hazlitt's article on travel advocates the benefits of solo travel within one's own country. His affection for travel is strong. He calls going on a journey "one of the pleasantest things in the world". Hazlitt stresses that solitude while on a journey is a must, saying "nature is company enough for me", and "I am never less alone than when alone".

Hazlitt insists that sharing in the experience of nature with a companion takes away from the sensory experience of it. He asserts bluntly: "I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time". He believes conversation distracts from the scenery, and that nature does not need to be discussed, only experienced. To tale about the scene while experiencing it diminishes it and takes away from its immediate beauty. Scenery is not to be negotiated. Everyone will have their own unique experience of nature, and since each experience is personal it is futile to compare experiences. Hazlitt says: "The continual comparing of notes interferes with the involuntary impression of things upon the mind, and hurts the sentiment". His view opposes that of Alphonse Frankenstein, who urges Victor to take a family tour of the Chamounix, insisting that companionship in the experience compounds its remedial value. But Hazlitt seeks freedom from fellow men when he journeys. He says "the soul of a journey is think, feel, do, just as one pleases". When experiencing nature in solitude, Hazlitt is able to appreciate it to its full extent by becoming one with nature. He says "when i am in the country i wish to vegetate like the country". A journey should be a time of freedom and peace, away from all things associated with city life. When travelling alone you are " a creature of the of all ties". A journey can provide "a little breathing space" to refresh and revitalize a person. When on a journey, Hazlitt says he begins "to feel, think and be myself again". He finds joy in living while in nature: "Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet...I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy". Hazlitt's language describes the experience as being cathartic, like a return to the innocence of childhood. Hazlitt says the freedom found in nature comes from being away from people, and allowing the mind to rest. By not having to burden the mind with "attempts at wit", one can simply BE. It is the silence that affords Hazlitt relief. "Mine is that undisturbed silence of the heart which is perfect eloquence". The retreat from the company of others is necessary: "No one likes puns, alliterations, argument better than I do; but I sometimes had rather be without them."

The therapeutic function of solo journeys is in freeing the mind, and allowing one to be selfish in their own thoughts: "I like to have it all my own way, and this is impossible unless you are alone".

Victor Frankenstein would probably agree with this assumption. He too seeks solitude in nature, and finds comfort in being alone in a sublime scene. Victor says:

solitude was my only consolation -- deep, dark, death-like solitude", "I resolved to go alone to the summit of Montanvert. I remembered the effect that the view of the tremendous and ever-moving glacier had produced upon my mind when i first saw it. It had then filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul...

Also, when the mind is free it is helpful for those "who wish to forget painful thoughts".

Another reason for Hazlitt's preference for solitude stems from his belief that it is affected to attempt to speak about the scenery, in any way that could do it justice, unless you are a poet. He claims that Coleridge could probably travel with a companion, because he has the ability to articulate his surroundings. Hazlitt does not possess such an ability, and writes:

To give way to our feelings before company seems extravagance or affectation; and on the other hand, to have to unravel this mystery of our being at every turn, and to make others take an equal interest in it is a task to which few are competent.

Like Gilpin, Hazlitt requires time to think back on scenes in order to gain a full appreciation of them:

At the sight of nature my fancy, poor as it is, drops and closes up its leaves, like flowers at sunset. I can make nothing out of the spot - I must have time to collect myself.

A humourous side of Hazlitt is revealed in his belief that is one MUST share in a journey with someone, it is best not to discuss the scenery, but rather to discuss what you both shall eat for supper that night, since excursions do whet the appetite! The scenery and experience then may be discussed afterwards, over tea. Also, Hazlitt asserts that a stranger is always better company than a friend, for in most cases they are part of the scene (an innkeeper, a peasant, etc) Hazlitt writes:

How I love to see the camps of the gypsies; and to sigh my soul into that sort of life. If I express this feeling to another, he may qualify and spoil it with some objection.

The advantage of being alone also lies in the freedom and space to reflect on the self, so much so that we "begin to be objects of curiosity and wonder even to ourselves" One might wish to warn Hazlitt that when he starts to become an object of wonder to himself, it is time to return to the company of others! Certainly, Frankenstein's monster would argue with Hazlitt over the advantages of solitude. The monster tells Victor: "Am I not alone, miserably alone? The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge...I am miserable".

Similarly, Clerval would argue with Hazlitt. Clerval enjoys the companionship of others while travelling. Victor comments that Clerval became "alive to every new scene; joyful when he saw the beauties of the setting sun, and more happy when he beheld it rise, and recommence a new day. He pointed out to me the shifting colours of the landscape, and the appearance of the sky" Hazlitt would perhaps argue that Clerval is suited to company because of his poetic abilities. After all, Clerval is said to possess a mind "replete with ideas, imaginations fanciful and magnificent".

Hazlitt is not opposed to company when viewing things constructed - like ruins, aqueducts and pictures. These things are intelligible, according to Hazlitt and therefore worthy of discussion. Nature, on the other hand, is unintelligible, and therefore not a topic for discussion.

Also, Hazlitt asserts that company is actually required when travelling in a foreign land! He seems to contradict everything he has so ardently argued, but he insists that foreign places "require assistance of social sympathy". He writes: "I should want at intervals to hear the sound of my own language", "A person would almost feel stifled to find himself in the deserts of Arabia without friends and countrymen...the pyramids are too mighty for any single contemplation".

Works Cited

Hazlitt, William. "On Going a Journey" in New Monthly Magazine, January 1822; Table Talk, 1822

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein.